Published by: Atria Books (Simon Schuster)
Review written by Jonathan E.
Upon my completion of reading Lloyd Shepherd’s novel The Poisoned Island, my only initial negative reaction was toward its title, which I felt rang of a cheesy, plastic beach read one might come across in the two-dollar bin at one of those overstock book warehouses that show up seasonally in empty shopping centers. I don’t necessarily find anything wrong with those books, but those of you following my particular reviews thus far might have noticed that my tastes tend to be a tad more literary *cough*pretentious*. That being said, I chose to read The Poisoned Island because publisher Simon & Schuster did such a wonderful job making the novel seem like so much more with a stimulating cover (I try to always judge books by these) and intriguing synopsis, not to mention a positive review quote from The Guardian.
I’m glad I ended up reading The Poisoned Island, as I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think my conflicted reaction to the title says more about me as a reader than it says about the quality of a well-written novel and its title. Shepherd’s novel is not especially literary—at least, not in the way Forgiving the Angel and American Pastoral (the last two books I reviewed, both considered “literary fiction”) are—; however, it is an exceptionally well-written historical thriller that takes great pains to establish its setting. In fact, several chapters open with pages of atmospheric description that takes the reader through a particular section of London or the island of Tahiti without even introducing a character. And despite the fact that the novel seems to be presented as a Victorian noir (it’s actually Georgian, technically), its descriptions are not tedious like those found in books by Dickens or Collins. The prose, although heavily influenced by 19th century English literature, is actually quite contemporary and easy to follow.
I haven’t dealt with much crime noir in any medium since True Detectives finished on HBO; I was recovering from what I call a “literary hangover.” I usually love the stuff, but when I experience something as engrossing as True Detectives, I either try to get my paws on anything remotely like it (only to be disappointed because it did not live up to the source of the inspiration), or I avoid all work of that genre to save myself from said disappointment. I learned my lesson after The Wire (boy, did everything suck after that!) and chose the latter experience after True Detectives. And it’s a good thing I did; The Poisoned Island was NOT at all the same kind of story True Detectives was, but it has been almost three months since the finale, and I still caught myself drawing obnoxious fanboy/English teacher comparisons between the two (and surprise! Surprise! True Detectives always came out on top). No way! Mr. Shepherd deserves much better than that.
I was able to stop myself before it ruined my reading experience; I trust you know your own reading habits well enough to prudently chose what to read and when to read it, so I’ll shut up about all of that and give you something a little more helpful. The Poisoned Island is a mystery crime noir that takes place in 1812 London with flashback scenes that take place 40 years prior on the island of Tahiti. The Thames River Police Chief Charles Horton, on special assignment by Magistrate John Harriott, investigates a series of deaths (murders?) of crew members from the newly-docked ship, the Solander. The Solander spent the last several years on a Polynesian island the English call Oteheite (Tahiti), where its crew was on a mission to collect its local flora for botanical research back in England, and one of those plants secretly brought back is a fictional, highly addictive hallucinogenic leaf referred to as the breadfruit plant. . . hilarity ensues. Highly addictive drug, corruption, ambiguous death patterns, and special assignment police work: you can see where Shepherd is taking us, but that’s all right since we like going there anyway.
The Poisoned Island’s particular blend of fiction, crime, and Georgian England history in a taught plot with healthy prose is just original enough that I recommend seeking this out if you are in the mood for something of its kind. It’s by no means a “can’t-miss,” but I personally believe anybody could read and enjoy it. The characters aren’t particularly complex, but they aren’t singularly boring either. There were certain elements of the story I thought the novel could have either done without or at least fleshed out a bit more tie into the dominant plot, but they hardly detracted from it. At times, I felt like it might have been trying to make a statement on the effects of colonialism on the civilizations of both the colonized and the colonizers, and I guess it does, but if you read it for that kind of intellectual discussion, you won’t end up with anything more than typical Tuesday evening book-club fodder. Read it for what it is, a very well-executed historical crime noir with an interesting plot concept and mystery.